Some six decades ago Chrysler unleashed a batch of dramatically different 1957 models that made its General Motors and Ford rivals seem shockingly old and tired. An advertising tagline for its volume seller, Plymouth, summed up the situation nicely, suggesting Chrysler was three years ahead of the industry: Suddenly, it’s 1960!
I’m reminded of that history because on first sight of the 2018 Lexus LS, I immediately thought, “Suddenly, it’s 1957!” At first glance this big, powerful modern car reminded me of a 1957 Buick Roadmaster. Not because of any specific details, obviously. But both cars are strongly assertive, their grilles complex assemblages of an enormous number of discrete pieces, far bigger than necessary for cooling the mechanisms behind them but impressive in their massive presence. And, of course, another 1957 touchstone came to mind instantly: “Zorro,” the Disney TV show. When you stand to the left of the LS, it’s impossible not to see that mark of Zorro Z-slash in the headlamp cluster. It is superposed on the fat-bellied front fender form, conjuring images of bumbling Sgt. Garcia’s sword-mutilated uniform after another humiliating encounter with the masked Hidalgo.
If both cars look very heavy, I believe it is by intention. For the LS 500, the imagined weight was artfully achieved by design, as it was in the Roadmaster. There’s little question today: Lexus builds the world’s highest quality mass-produced cars, infinitely more reliable electronically than Germany’s finest, just as it’s evident Lexus makes near-perfect traditional American cars — smooth boulevard cruisers never remotely intended for the Nürburgring or DTM racing. This LS is not particularly sleek or aerodynamic—not with those huge, high-drag holes up front — but it does look substantial and more at home on streets in the fancier parts of town than a sublimated race car that’s clearly out of place.
Toyota did a fabulous end run around midrange American cars when it introduced the Avalon, a totally bland, bench-seat, anonymous-looking sedan the U.S. market accepted quickly and that helped kill off midrange domestic brands Mercury, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Plymouth. It seems Lexus pulled off something similar with this car, perfectly suited to our market.
The thick-pillared, nearly flat-sided body seems to press down heavily onto a perfectly flat base plane. There’s a strong horizontal theme to the LS, emphasized by the hard chrome edges at the bottom of the front end, carried back along the sills by a straight chrome trim piece. A hard horizontal line just below the side glass parallel to that base carries back over the taillights, in conflict with the side window profile, itself inflected at two points for no apparent reason. I see this design as an esthetic mess, but it’s a carefully executed purposeful mess that achieves almost exactly what I suspect was desired. So despite my misgivings about its beauty (or, rather, its lack thereof), I predict this car will sell well and satisfy its owners.
1. This sharp line parallel to the ground above the thick, fat-bottomed bumper emphasizes width and makes the car seem bigger and heavier than it actually is.
2. This chrome bar and those underlining the taillights again stress the horizontal theme of the entire body.
3. The rear fender is cut away to allow the lamp to be visible from the sides and results in a surface point emphasizing length, allowing the outer surface to be farther outboard.
4. A continuation of the hard horizontal line below the side glass around the rear corner again stresses horizontality.
5. Two inexplicable bends in the window chrome leave a nearly straight section of chrome above the rear door handles.
6. This dead-straight kink in the body side has two obvious points of origin, front and rear, and fades away in the sheet metal bulge over the rear wheel opening.
7. The front fender bulge looks almost spherical from this angle. It is quite fat however you regard it.
8. This upward-facing section in the doors is deliberate, created by a hard rising bottom line running into the rear wheelhouse, with the upper part a soft radius into the doors.
9. This is a nicely sculpted piece, perfectly straight top and bottom but curved at its peak width.
10. Note the sill surfaces tip a bit outward toward the wheel opening.
11. Also subtly sculpted, this trim piece continues the horizontal line very low on the body.
12. The kink in the plastic bumper shroud is unrelated to anything but the chrome strip below.
13. Casting, rather than cheaply extruding constant sections, has been a feature of Lexus LS models for decades. It subliminally projects quality.
14. The upper corners of the spindle-shaped grille frame are razor-sharp points.
15. The headlamp assembly on the left has the classic mark of Zorro embedded. On the other side it’s backward. A sign of dyslexia on the part of the swordsman?
16. The hood cut line is really interesting as a decorative element, rising and falling as it moves to the rear.
17. It’s easy to see here that the A-pillar blocks a lot of vision for the driver.
18. There is a break in the transverse roofline where the massive structure surrounding the doors intersects with the lower, flatter roof panel.
19. Door handles are too big visually but just right in the hand. Relief behind them is too close to the hard line above, in the interest of having a convenient height for a standing person.
20. The corner grilles are simpler, with the horizontal theme emphasized.
21. A complementary trim piece, horizontal and pointed on the inner ends.
22. Lower corners of the grille frame have substantial depth, are slightly radiused at the forward point and greatly softened as the frame recedes to allow the texture to be more vertical.
23. A whole lot of texture-weaving in this massive grille. On the whole I like the ’57 Roadmaster’s equally overdone grille better. But both are too much for any decade.
24. Lines swirling down and forward from the windowsill are a surprisingly fanciful idea for what is, for the most part, a very staid automobile.
25. The exterior’s horizontal theme brought inside, the armrest form not unlike the taillights’ pointing form.
26. Pretty standard look for steering wheels these days: lots of leather, lots of buttons, not much style, elegance, or innovation.
27. These rotating knobs up high on the glare shield are quite practical and convenient, if a bit obtrusive.
28. An analog clock, a really nice thing to have in a car. Digital time pieces cost a lot less, but there’s little joy in looking at them.
29. Parallel lines bound by stitching near the driver’s door suggest a lot of hand work. I suspect that’s not true.
30. The half-dozen trim lines again, this time diverging in the center, converging to the end spacing.